Early on their quest to reach the Lonely Mountain in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" (1937), Bilbo Baggins and company cross paths with an enormous, shape-shifting warrior named Beorn.
"Sometimes he is a huge black bear," the wizard Gandalf says of the man, "sometimes he is a great strong black-haired man with huge arms and a great beard."
In either form, Beorn is a giant among his peers. And now, paleontologists have immortalized the shaggy, axe-wielding brute with the discovery of an extinct mammal that rose to prominence in the Paleocene epoch (65 million to 23 million years ago), shortly after the death of the dinosaurs. They call this furry, puffy-cheeked creature Beornus honeyi.
"I have always been a huge Tolkien fan, and there is a long-standing tradition of naming early Paleocene mammals after Tolkien characters," Madelaine Atteberry, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder and lead author of a new study on B. honeyi and its relatives, told Live Science in an email. "I chose Beornus honeyi because of the large size and 'inflated' appearance of its teeth compared to the other mammals from this time period."
You might expect the Beorn of ancient mammals to be a hulking, bear-like monster with axe-sharp teeth and claws — but the reality, much like Bilbo Baggins' party, is a little unexpected.